Georgia has delivered on democracy. It is now Brussels’ turn

By on November 14, 2016

If Georgia’s parliamentary elections of October 2016 were a test of the country’s commitment to democratisation, it passed the ordeal with flying colours. They tested the limits of Europeanisation from above, but likewise showcased a budding Europeanisation from below. Georgians have again legitimised their government’s pro-Western mandate. As a result, Tbilisi has bolstered its position as a tried-and-true partner of the European Union. Both Georgia’s society and institutions continue to affirm an enduring capability for reform. It is now Brussels’ turn to deliver on its end of the bargain.


Progress in a troubled neighbourhood

In terms of democratic development, Georgia is manifestly going it alone in the South Caucasus. Ranked “partly free” by Freedom House, it is by far the best performer in the region, though significant challenges remain on the rule of law. The country has traversed an unlikely path from its post-Soviet nadir of toxic nationalism, civil war and economic ruin: it has built institutions which it is gradually de-politicising; a market-based economy that is growing; and a party-political system that is moving from a polarised battle of personalities to issue-based politics. Despite Moscow’s insistence on sabotaging Georgia’s territorial integrity, energy security, and exports-reliant economy, Tbilisi’s liberal policies are succeeding to attract substantial trade and investment from both China and the EU.


Democracy under construction: results and expectations

As reported by international observers and analysts alike, Georgia’s October 2016 elections were generally free, fair, and competitive – more so than ever in the country’s independent history. Election observation procedures themselves carry stark political significance. In contrast to its neighbour states, Georgia has chosen to take a holistic view of election observation as an international norm. Both in the case of the 2013 and 2016 elections it invited international missions ahead of the election date being known. Each mission included solely organisations that represent the West – OSCE/ODIHR, the OSCE PA and the NATO PA, as well as the European Parliament. The Russian CEC and CIS delegations were not invited.

A number of concerns on the country’s future trajectory was present in the run-up to the elections. First, Georgia’s population sees no credible alternative to the country’s pro-Western orientation, but is at the same time increasingly disillusioned by the lack of tangible economic deliverables of the latter. Second, the governing Georgian Dream (GD) coalition is internally troubled – it is understood that the mounting rifts between rival groups within it are likely to culminate in political fragmentation sooner or later. Meanwhile, the opposition United National Movement (UNM) continues to be a target of harassment. Taken together, these realities create uncertainty for Georgia’s future political plurality. Third, voters’ persisting weariness of the feud between the informal leaders – former PM Mikheil Saakashvili behind UNM and the reclusive financier and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili behind GD – risked opening up Georgia’s mainstream politics to protest votes for pro-Russian parties.

As a whole, the results of the elections are encouraging. Despite isolated incidents at polling stations, the EU gave both the campaign and the elections high marks. The governing GD coalition won in a landslide, securing 44 of the seats in the parliament; 27 seats went to the UNM. The liberal Free Democrats (FD) and the Republican Party (RP) failed to garner more than 5% of votes each and received no seats. At the same time, the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and the Industrialists (‘Industry Will Save Georgia’) did not gain nearly enough influence to seriously impend Georgia’s Western path. The former received six seats in the parliament, while the latter received just a single constituency seat. Nevertheless, concerns over the GD’s domination in the next four years are likely overblown – European democracies such as the United Kingdom hardly present a more pluralistic model.

Widespread disillusionment with the perceived lack of economic benefits from European integration drove down turnout to 51.6%, the lowest rate since Georgia’s independence. Yet both UNM’s and GD’s campaigns leading up to the elections were characterised by a more down-to-earth and issue-driven debate than ever, while personality politics received an impetus to wind down. Both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili did campaign for their parties despite not officially running for office. Mikheil Saakashvili’s insistence to campaign for his party from abroad hurt rather than helped it. While he rescinded his plans to return to Georgia on the day before the election and again on election day, the damage had already been done. After a successful campaign for the UNM and a lesson learnt for GD, there is now reason to believe that the incumbent PM Kvirikashvili will be able to act more independently from Ivanishvili than he or his predecessors ever could. As for the UNM, its young leadership finally has an impetus to disentangle itself from Saakashvili’s imposing legacy.


Who’s the fairest of them all?

Dubbed one of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) frontrunners by Brussels, Georgia is now leading the pack. Out of the three partner states to engage with the EU and sign political association, free trade, and visa liberalisation agreements (AA/DCFTA + VLAP) in exchange for commitment to reforms, it was never the greatest prise. Ukraine, the crown jewel of the EaP, has achieved significant progress since its 2014 revolution. Yet it is an unwieldy ship to steer: its political parties are fleeting façades which enjoy little trust among the population; the energy of its civil society continues to be stifled and frustrated by powerful remnants of the ancién regime; little progress has been made on fighting corruption. Moldova, previously the EU darling and an EaP success story, has been mired in graft on an unprecedented scale since 2015. The victory of an openly pro-Russian candidate at the presidential run-off on November 13 threatens to entirely upend its pro-Western path. In contrast to its peers, Georgia’s politics continue to be firmly oriented towards European integration while political and economic reforms carry on.


Do as I say, not as I do

The October 2016 elections proved that the EU’s mandate to support democracy in its neighbourhood has borne fruit in Georgia. The ‘more-for-more’ principle built into the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), and by extension the EaP, points the EU towards developing stronger partnerships with those neighbours who make greater progress towards democratic reform. Still, the effectiveness of Brussels’ policy towards its eastern partners is increasingly hampered by three sets of factors.

First, the ‘get closer, but do not touch’ approach of the Eastern Partnership is beginning to reach its limits with those partner states which make the greatest progress on reforms. The EaP Riga Summit did attempt to address the need for growing differentiation on what is offered to partners. Yet the EaP was never designed as an instrument that followed the logic of enlargement; it instead built on a rapprochement toolbox. The inescapable shortcomings of this approach are beginning to show – Georgia is now in a vacuum between AA/DCFTA + VLAP implementation and the membership prospect – a prospect which it yearns for, but is increasingly less likely to obtain. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, the partner states’ “European aspirations” are acknowledged, but this in no way paves a way to EU membership – “they are not ready, and we are not ready”. Yet no matter how much readier Georgia can get, Europe will be decidedly less ready in the wake of Brexit and, arguably, the U.S. presidential election of November 2016.

Second, the diminishing power of the European Commission vis-à-vis the EU member states is increasingly becoming a hindrance for the EU’s ability to deliver on its commitments towards its partners. In the case of visa liberalisation for Georgia and Ukraine (VLAP), the Commission concluded that both partner states had fulfilled the technical criteria for visa requirements to be lifted. Yet Germany, spurred on by the sudden salience of migration as a top priority issue, led a group of major member states in rebellion against the Commission’s decision. These dynamics are likely to become even more prevalent in the future, if even well-substantiated Commission decisions can evidently be stopped in their tracks by the internal politics of the member states. On a macro level, this casts doubts over the functioning of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in its entirety. As regard to the EU’s neighbourhood policy specifically, the predictability of procedures will now be called into question – they can either be technocratic or politicised, but not both.

Finally, the EU’s need to be proactively involved in conflict management in its neighbourhood, beyond people-to-people contacts and monitoring missions, is more urgent and palpable than ever. Twenty percent of Georgia’s territory continues to be illegally occupied by Russia. With five out of six EaP partners embroiled in territorial disputes (whereas Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are even engaged in low to medium intensity warfare), this is the elephant in the room. The hard security void in the Eastern Partnership is an even greater issue than the lack of a membership prospect. While the latter would be able to act as a powerful impetus for deep and lasting reform, the former is the most significant basis for any political and institutional stability that is required to make the partner states’ European integration a success.

Author: Boris Ajeganov
Boris is a Junior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute – Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Stockholm, Sweden. He is also Assistant Editor of the CACI Analyst. Boris is an MA candidate in Political Science at Stockholm University, Sweden and has a background in Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine area studies. He has previously worked with the Eastern Partnership countries as intern with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and with internally displaced persons as intern with UNHCR Ukraine. His research interests include European energy security, frozen conflicts, and the European integration of post-Soviet states.

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